The truth will out - Books. By Ian Kershaw 7 July 2002 The Sunday Times English (c) 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd TELLING LIES ABOUT HITLER The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial. By Richard J Evans. Verso £14 pp326 What is historical truth? Historians and philosophers have debated the issue for decades. It is an argument without end. Some have taken Pontius Pilate's way out. Most have sought some kind of relative rather than absolute truth in the writing of history. A few extreme relativists have argued that any quest for truth or objectivity in history is pointless. In their view, writing about the past is no more than an expression of opinion, dependent upon the personal perspective and approach of the historian. A touchstone for evaluating such views has often been the Holocaust. If there are no certainties about the horrors that took place so recently in Nazi-occupied Europe, then can we really know anything at all about the past, even the recent past where documentary sources are so plentiful? And if history is just a matter of opinion and of how the past is reconstructed in the minds of historians, then is not one view of the Holocaust of equal value to the next - even views that deny that it actually took place? When he wrote In Defence of History, published in 1997 and strongly critical of postmodernist relativisation of historical knowledge, Richard J Evans, a distinguished historian of modern Germany and holder of the chair of modern history at Cambridge University, had no inkling that he would soon be called upon to put historical method to the test, under the glare of attention from the world's media, as the leading expert witness in one of the most striking libel cases of recent times - the lawsuit brought by David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books alleging defamation through the claim that he was a Holocaust denier. Evans's new book, Telling Lies about Hitler, is a triumphant demonstration, on one of the most important issues imaginable, of the virtues of proper and sound historical method. Acres of print have been devoted to the Irving case, which ran for two months in early 2000, but nothing rivals the importance or authority of this book, based largely on the expert report that Evans produced for the court, and which in turn underpinned Mr Justice Gray's devastating judgment on Irving. It is remarkable, given the legal demolition of Irving's reputation as a historian, that several well-known publishing houses backed out of publishing the book for fear of further libel writs. Much credit is owing, therefore, to Verso for finally making available in this country a book that appeared in America (where libel laws are less weighted towards the claimant) a year earlier. The nature of English libel law determined that the only defence against Irving's libel suit was to prove that the allegedly libellous statements were true. This, in turn, placed the onus on the work of expert historians who were able to assess the highly complex evidence for what, it was asserted, Irving was denying: the gassing facilities at Auschwitz, the murder of millions of Jews in a systematic Nazi extermination programme, and Hitler's authorisation of that programme. And since Irving had always staked his claim to preeminence, in his writing on Nazi Germany, on his mastery of archival sources which the professional historians he so often derided had not consulted, it was vital that his use of such sources was proved to be deliberately tendentious - that is, weighted consistently towards a particular interpretation of events and deliberately omitting or distorting evidence which ran counter to that interpretation. This was the task which fell upon Evans and the other expert witnesses in the case. It was not an easy one. Irving used a wide array of unpublished sources, many obscure, in his books, and his way of referencing (as I found out when checking the sources for my books on Hitler) often meant that it was extraordinarily difficult to track them down. Only through such meticulously detailed and technical work was it possible to mount a legal defence. And this defence, based on historical method, was necessary to establish that denial of the Holocaust rested on falsified and distorted use of evidence. All in all, then, it was correct to say, as the first chapter of Evans's book explains, that in the court-room drama of spring 2000, history itself was "on trial". Those who thought otherwise, and that a law court was not the place to determine issues of historical knowledge and interpretation, were mistaken. The rules of evidence in a law-suit are tougher than those conventionally applied in an article for a historical journal. This was all the more reason why the denial of the systematic mass murder of the Jews needed to be shown, through the most rigorous historical method, to be false. For, in the event of an Irving victory, those who, for pernicious reasons, insisted that the Holocaust was a massive historical hoax would have gained enormous legitimation for their case. In the central chapters of his book, Evans clinically dissects Irving's key historical writings to reveal a consistent exoneration of Hitler's role in the persecution, then extermination, of the Jews, and a conscious distortion of the evidence for the systematic gassings in the death-camps. By careful evaluation of Irving's unpublished papers, letters and speeches made available to the court, he is able to show Irving's marked adoption, from the late 1980s onwards, of Holocaust denial approaches. Among the most impressive parts of the book is Evans's analysis of Irving's early bestseller, first published in 1963, The Destruction of Dresden. Through painstaking assessment of the evidence, and of Irving's use of it, Evans demonstrates that Irving massively inflated the number of victims of the terrible bombing of Dresden's civilian population in February 1945, continuing to insist on implausibly high figures even when the main source on which he had relied had been revealed as a crude Nazi forgery. "Irving's overriding purpose," comments Evans, "was to drive up the figure of those killed in the raids by any means until it became many times greater than the actual number, and began to achieve implicit and, in the end, explicit comparability with the mass murders carried out by the Nazis at Auschwitz and elsewhere." Irving's "repeated manipulations and distortions" of the Dresden death toll had occurred in his first book in English. The misuse of evidence had, therefore, started long before Irving "began to argue that Hitler had been a friend of the Jews, and more than two decades before he started to deny the existence of the gas chambers". There was a pattern to the distortion of evidence, in other words, and it went back to the beginning of Irving's career as a writer. It took almost two years of research by Evans and his two assistants, Thomas Skelton-Robinson and Nik Wachsmann, before the expert report was ready for use at the trial, and it has been a further two years before Evans's book has finally been made available in Britain. But the time spent was worthwhile and the frustrations incurred in the delayed publication have not been in vain. Evans deserves our gratitude for undermining the pseudo-historical basis of Holocaust denial. Though it would be no bad thing if Irving and the trial finally slipped out of the limelight, it is good that we have Evans's book to remind us of the rules of historical evidence, and, in particular, how history should not be written. Even if the nature of historical truth remains a matter of continuing and legitimate debate, Telling Lies about Hitler leaves us in no doubt that there is such a thing as historical untruth. Ian Kershaw's Hitler: 1889-1936: Hubris and Hitler: 1936-1945: Nemesis are published by Penguin. Telling Lies about Hitler is available at the Books Direct price of £11.20 plus £1.95 p&p on 0870 165 8585 Read on... websites: http://www.remember.org/ Forum for Holocaust survivors, to promote remembrance (c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 2002.
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